WHEN IN ROME

Australian House & Garden
On this European bus tour, the sightseeing is not done from the coach or carparks.  It’s all about getting out and lapping up the local lifestyle, writes Vanessa Walker.

LEFT A perfumed rose grows against the the wall of Villa il Poggiale, a historic estate just 10 minutes from downtown Florence. RIGHT The elegant portico of the villa, one of the oldest and most beautiful in San Casciano, Florence. Photography Matthew Lowden.

LEFT A perfumed rose grows against the the wall of Villa il Poggiale, a historic estate just 10 minutes from downtown Florence. RIGHT The elegant portico of the villa, one of the oldest and most beautiful in San Casciano, Florence. Photography Matthew Lowden.

I’m standing in a bustling fresh produce market in Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio – between a woman selling an incredible array of wild strawberries, raspberries and blueberries and a man with pretty boxes full of bright orange clementines – clutching a scrap of paper with the words 1 sedano, 10 pezzi fiori de zucca written on it.

I can’t read or speak Italian and find it hard to believe that in an hour I’m going to be whipping up deliciously rustic Tuscan peasant food with Libero, the owner of I Tre Pini restaurant in the Chianti Classico hills… or not, if I can’t work out what ingredients I’m meant to be buying. I’m in Florence on a European bus tour with a difference. We’re still being ferried from place to place by luxury coach, but the journey is packed with excursions that bring us closer to the locals and their daily lives. Tour operator Trafalgar calls these Be My Guest and Hidden Treasure experiences.

LEFT The charming Old Dining Room in the Villa di Maiano, the main house of Fattoria de Maiano, which was used as a location for the films Tea with Mussolini and A Room with a View. RIGHT Produce sellers at Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio stock an incredible array of fruit and vegies.

LEFT The charming Old Dining Room in the Villa di Maiano, the main house of Fattoria de Maiano, which was used as a location for the films Tea with Mussolini and A Room with
a View
. RIGHT Produce sellers at Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio stock an incredible array of fruit and vegies.

On an Italian tour you might visit an olive estate then share lunch with the aristocratic owners in their centuries-old villa (more on that later). On a tour of Provence, France, you might drop into Le Jardin du Quai to devour one of chef Daniel Hebet’s famous macarons. Daniel made his name at Ladurée, the Parisian macaron shop established in 1862 and, by arrangement, he will let you in on the secrets to his technique. Or, you might stop by a vineyard to meet its vignerons, then slip into the owner’s chateau for canapés. At every stop you’ll venture off the beaten track to a restaurant, a shop or an interesting historic site not found on mainstream tour itineraries.

Back at the market, a sympathetic local points to celery, then holds up ten fingers and proffers zucchini flowers. I’m on my way.

At I Tre Pini, Libero’s cooks teach our group how to make gnocchi from scratch, concoct a divine ribollita (soup), a bread and tomato panzanella (salad) and a castagnaccio (chestnut flour cake). After our food is laid out and mightily supplemented by the kitchen (another authentic Italian touch) and our group sits down to eat, a distinguished-looking gentleman and his guitarist serenade us with a version of That’s Amore that would make Dean Martin proud.

LEFT The lunch spread laid on by the owners, the Miari Fulcis family. RIGHT Succulent fresh tomatoes on sale at the market.

LEFT The lunch spread laid on by the owners, the Miari Fulcis family. RIGHT Succulent fresh tomatoes on sale at the market.

This more intimate approach to coach tours has come straight from the top. The seed was planted when the family who owns Trafalgar was dining in afriend’s lemon grove in Italy. Talk turned to how everyone should enjoy an experience of this quality and that they, of all people, could make it happen. They asked their teams to look around their local regions, and in some cases knock on the doors of small businesses, to develop authentic experiences to share. Italy, with its thriving agriturismi, was particularly fertile ground.

After dessert at I Tre Pini, our group goes to the Accademia Gallery to admire the six tonnes of white Carrara marble that is Michelangelo’s David, and get a fantastic high-speed round-up of Michelangelo’s life “a crazy genius” from our local tour guide Madeleine Fakhouri (who is also an Accademia employee). She sighs at the tour’s end, saying no man can match David’s perfection, that’s why she is still single.

LEFT A worker at Fattoria di Maiano’s olive-oil press enjoys a rest in the sunshine. RIGHT One of the pleasures of visiting Fattoria di Maiano is taking a stroll in its well-tended gardens.

LEFT A worker at Fattoria di Maiano’s olive-oil press enjoys a rest in the sunshine. RIGHT One of the pleasures of visiting Fattoria di Maiano is taking a stroll in its well-tended gardens.

The shops near the Ponte Vecchio live up to their reputation and we snap up the handbags, belts and gloves the city is famous for. After a perfect travel day – place, people, art and shopping – Iretire to my suite in the unbelievable 15th-century Villa il Poggiale.

The next morning I’m charmed to see fruit pickers spread out across the estate plucking olives from the laden trees.

By afternoon we’ve pulled up at Fattoria di Maiano, which sits resplendent on the hills between Fiesole and Florence. This 300-hectare 15th-century estate is owned by Count and Countess Miari Fulcis and produces topnotch organic olive oil. After being shown the opulent villa, the family – who are remarkably shy and humble given their standing – sets out a delicious lunch in the Sala Olivaia, an ancient olive storage room now used for parties.

LEFT An afternoon spent wandering around the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the shop-lined medieval bridge spanning the Arno river, is the way to enjoy historical Florence. RIGHT The incomparable Libero, owner of I Tre Pini restaurant.

LEFT An afternoon spent wandering around the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the shop-lined medieval bridge spanning the Arno river, is the way to enjoy historical Florence. RIGHT The incomparable Libero, owner of I Tre Pini restaurant.

We conclude our Italian tour a day later in Rome where, after shopping along the Via del Corso, we enjoy an ebullient late-night feast at a local ristorante.

In an alluring taste of the Paris and Provence tour, we also visit Château la Dorgonne, one of 15 organic wineries in the Luberon – the area made famous by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in

Provence. After some wine tasting, we repair to owner Baudouin Parmentier’s chateau, where he proudly declares, over a lunch of courgette flan, Provençale casserole and Luberon goats’ cheese, that his is one of the few towns to remain free of the hordes of Mayle-ites.

LEFT The villa is a lovely place to hunker down in autumn. RIGHT Olive pickers at work on the grounds of Villa il Poggiale.

LEFT The villa is a lovely place to hunker down in autumn. RIGHT Olive pickers at work on the grounds of Villa il Poggiale.

A tiny restaurant perched above the la-Sorgue river is the setting for our last dinner. Located at the quiet end of the village, Hostellerie le Chateau is a place I’d never have found if I’d been travelling alone. Sitting among chatting locals, for a short time I had the priceless feeling that I belonged.


On tour

10-day Flavours Of Italy First Class At Leisure Guided Holiday, from $2750 per person,
twin share
. This tour takes in the culinary delights of Rome, Florence, Pisa, Fidenza, Parma, Bologna and Venice. Highlights include a Tuscan market and cooking experience and tasting sessions at a wine and olive-oil outlet in Greve, a Be My Guest meal and a dinner in Parma showcasing the region’s cheese and ham specialties.
11-day Paris and Provence At Leisure Guided Holiday, from $3450 per person, twin share. Starting in Paris, travellers are whisked to Provence by TGV fast train. This is followed by visits to Nimes, Arles, Cassis and Nice. Highlights include stops at markets in Aix-En-Provence, a Be My Guest lunch at a family-run winery and a cooking class in Nimes. Go to www.trafalgar.com.

HOW TO GET THERE Etihad flies daily to Milan from Sydney, three times a week from Melbourne and twice weekly from Brisbane. Etihad has twice-daily flights to Paris from Sydney, daily flights from Melbourne and thrice-weekly services from Brisbane. Airfares start from $1900 ex taxes. Go to www.etihadairways.com.

GARDEN EXTRA A short stroll from Florence’s centre is the beautiful Boboli Gardens, once the grounds of the Medici family’s Pitti Palace. Take in the gardens and the views of the city below.